An American Editor

January 19, 2015

Thinking Fiction: The Style Sheets — Part I: General Style

The Style Sheets — Part I: General Style

by Amy J. Schneider

So you’ve completed the first-pass read-through of the manuscript. Now you’re ready to get into the thick of things and do your main-pass edit. Let’s get to it!

Of course, as for a nonfiction copyedit, you will compile a style sheet. If a style sheet is available from a previous book by that author or a previous book in the series, use that as your starting point. (See my essay, “The First Pass — Just Read It!,” for more on reviewing previous style sheets.) I actually maintain four style sheets (general style, characters, places, and timeline) for each fiction edit for ease of navigation, although if you would like to combine the four sections I use into one document, go right ahead. Or you can keep them separate and combine them into one document when the edit is finished. Over the next four essays I will discuss the style sheets I keep in a little more detail.

General Style Sheet

In fiction as in nonfiction, we need to track the basics, such as treatment of numbers, abbreviations, punctuation, typography (use of italics and other font attributes), usage, and, of course a general word list. The Chicago Manual of Style is one of several standard style guides in book publishing, but the rules in fiction are looser than in nonfiction and thus Chicago — and any other style guide — should be considered more a guide than a collection of hard-and-fast rules. And, as I’ve mentioned earlier, there is much more leeway for style in fiction because the author is creating a mood and telling a story. (Imagine how flavorless The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be if it had been edited to be one hundred percent grammatically correct!)


Most of the time in fiction, numbers will be spelled out, especially in dialogue, but as always there are exceptions. Phone numbers (particularly 911, the emergency number), years, decimals, vehicle designations (such as aircraft call signs), and weapon names (AK-47) and calibers are usually presented in digits. In general, use digits for numbers that would become unwieldy if spelled out. Common entries on my style sheet include heights (five-foot-one, six four), time (eight thirty, 6:27 a.m.), highway numbers (Route 28, the 101), decades (the seventies), clothing sizes (size eight) and room numbers (room 307). (The examples I’ve given here are just that — examples — rather than rules about how to style these. Again, each book might use a different style, with house style and author preference as factors.) I’ll delve into numbers in more detail in a future article.


Abbreviations used in a novel might be those used in the real world (GPS, FYI) as well as invented ones from the fictional world in the novel (names of organizations, slang terms). I generally include them whether they have been spelled out or not, simply to clarify what they stand for. (Unlike nonfiction, there is no need to spell out every acronym for the edification of the reader. Context is key.)


Most authors will use the serial comma, but some prefer to omit it. Make a note! (And indicate that it’s the author’s preference. I use “(au pref)” after any such item. In my work, the publisher informs me of author preferences for certain terms or style choices, either in the cover note or on a previous style sheet.) The same is true for ellipses (some authors use the 3-dot ellipse only). I’ve had a few authors who said, “No semicolons.” This section is also where I note general forms of punctuation, so I can find them easily, instead of putting a specific term in the alphabetical word list. For example, I put “fifth-grader (n)” here instead of under F in the general word list because I want to show how I’m treating this word form instead this specific word. Other examples of things I track here include color terms (whether and when to hyphenate forms such as black-and-white, silver-gray, reddish orange, and sky blue), whether to set off words such as too, either, and anyway with commas (many authors have a preference), and possessives of names ending in –s. (I recently had an author who specified apostrophe-only for possessives of names ending in –s or –z. So I maintained that style for words such as Chris’ and Buzz’. It went against my grain, but it was the author’s stated preference, approved by the publisher. So on the style sheet it went, with the “(au pref)” tag.)

This is also a good place to note unusual punctuation used in dialogue: ’cause, ag’in, I’mma.


Direct thought, indirect thought, imagined dialogue, mouthed dialogue, remembered speech, telepathic dialogue, words as words or sounds, letters as letters or shapes or academic grades, signs, handwriting, text messages, e-mails, typed text, computer commands, foreign terms: these can be treated in many different ways. Italic? Small caps? Caps and small caps? A special character style in the client’s template? Roman, in quotation marks? All caps? Initial caps? Title case? Note it here.

A common consideration in fiction is how to treat terms of address and epithets. Generally, generic terms used to address someone that are not an established nickname for that person are lowercased: sweetheart, pumpkin, my dear, ma’am, jerkface. Occupational titles used in place of a name are often capped (but not always!): Doctor, Officer, Lieutenant. The same is true for temporary epithets: Mr. Wonderful, Crazy Homeless Guy.


Note any firm usage preferences here: whether to distinguish between that/which, further/farther, each other/one another, and the like. (These would usually apply mainly to omniscient narrative, as first-person narrative and dialogue are frequently left as is rather than conformed to “correct” usage, unless the character would be expected to use it.) An excellent usage reference is Garner’s Modern American Usage.


Ah, “Miscellaneous,” the junk drawer of the style sheet. In fiction I use this primarily for terms that don’t fit in other places: fictional and real items such as organization names, publications, historical events, special terms such as magical commands, and so on.

General Word List

The word list is pretty much the same as for nonfiction, with some additions. Here I note any British spellings and foreign terms, treatment of slang terms (dammit or damn it?) trademarks (real or fictional), sounds and interjections (uh-huh, uh-oh, for gosh sakes), and so on, as well as the usual sorts of terms one might include on a nonfiction word list. I also note any variants from dictionary spellings that the author may prefer (again, with the “(au pref)” label). In invented worlds, such as in fantasy novels, unconventional capping is much more prevalent: the Sight, She (referring to an exalted character), Before (referring to an earlier era). The word list is a good place to note terms such as these.

In Coming Essays…

In coming essays, I’ll delve into each of these areas in more detail. Hopefully, this article has given you a good overview. Next month: tracking character attributes.

Amy J. Schneider (, owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.

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